NEW YORK - You can only imagine the rush David Gregory felt when his "Meet the Press" guest, Vice President Joe Biden, took a cue from him and blurted out some history.
Midway through that memorable interview last May, Biden seized the bait when Gregory happened to ask his position on gay marriage.
"Once he mentioned the societal impact of `Will & Grace,'" says Gregory, "I knew we were off to the races."
Biden surprised everyone (maybe even himself) by declaring he was "absolutely comfortable" with same-sex married couples enjoying the same rights as heterosexual married couples, thus inadvertently prodding President Barack Obama to publicly affirm his own support for same-sex unions days later.
That kind of Beltway Booyah moment helps account for why Gregory loves hosting "Meet the Press," NBC's venerable Sunday morning public-affairs program he took over four years ago (and where he recently accepted what the network calls its "long-term commitment" for his services).
"This is an agenda-setting program," says Gregory. "What happens on `Meet the Press' can definitely make news and frame the debate."
But it isn't just the bombshells that give Gregory a kick. On "Meet the Press" (check local listings) he also experiences the occasional interview that, as he describes it, seems akin to a dream-state.
Like the recent visit by former Secretary of State Colin Powell.
"I was so engaged in talking to him," says Gregory, "that I wasn't thinking about the fact that we were on television, in the middle of the show. That's a pretty great feeling."
But such interrogatory rapture isn't the norm, he notes during a chat not long ago at NBC's New York headquarters.
"I sometimes have a sense that, `Wow, I'm not getting anything here, so how hard do I want to drill into this stone before I move on and try something slightly different?'
"Above all," he stresses, "the program needs to be a civil forum."
It generally is - even when Gregory faced National Rifle Association President Wayne LaPierre not long after the shootings in Newtown, Conn.
That interview "got pretty aggressive on both ends," Gregory acknowledges.
And in the heated atmosphere of the gun-control debate, this interview's substance was largely upstaged by a prop Gregory pulled out in the course of his questioning: a high-capacity ammunition magazine, the possession of which turned out to be against local gun laws. (After an investigation by the District of Columbia's Office of the Attorney General, prosecutors said in January that Gregory wouldn't face charges. He now says he is legally prohibited from commenting.)
But during the LaPierre exchange, "I got to ask questions that I thought were important to really test him and push him," says Gregory, "and I think he felt like he was able to push back and say what he wanted to say. I think that's important." (LaPierre did not respond to requests for his opinion of the meeting.)
The 42-year-old Gregory was named "Meet the Press" moderator in December 2008, a few months after the sudden death of Tim Russert, a dogged interviewer and, after 17 years as host of the program, a TV institution in his own right.
The Los Angeles-born Gregory, who joined NBC News in 1995, came to the program after serving as chief White House correspondent during the presidency of George W. Bush.
"I'm not Tim," Gregory told viewers when his "Meet the Press" appointment was announced. "But I can just work real hard to make him proud."
Notable for his prematurely silver hair (readily evident to viewers) and his 6-foot-5 frame (undetectable on TV, since he's seated), Gregory has brought a crispness and amped-up pace to the broadcast.
"I want people to see that he's going to be tough," says Gregory, lapsing into the third person, "that he's going to force some accountability - but he's also going to try to engage (his subjects) in a conversation and draw them out.
"I'm trying to get to something real."
On that score, Gregory pursues a calling similar to his wife's: Beth Wilkinson is a prominent Washington-based trial attorney.
Gregory met her in 1997 while covering the trial of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. She was one of the federal prosecutors working to convict him.
"What first struck me about her questioning the jurors during voir dire was, she had great legs," Gregory recalls. "Then I got to see her at her job and doing it so well. After the trial we got together, and 12 years and three children later, we're very happy.
"And she's a great adviser to me for the program," he adds. "She's got great ideas and often can help me prepare, and she can give me very tough feedback afterward. I couldn't be any luckier to have her in my corner."
Although "Meet the Press" has been on the air since 1947 - it is billed as "the world's longest-running television program" - Gregory faces stiff competition in a crowded Sunday-morning yack pack.
Currently, CBS' "Face the Nation" claims the lead in the audience sweepstakes. Season to date, it's averaging 3.25 million viewers (though CBS only counts the program's first, higher-rated half-hour), while "Meet the Press," which calls itself the most-watched HOUR, is averaging 3.13 million viewers. ABC's "This Week" and Fox's "Fox News Sunday" take third and fourth place.
"Meet the Press" must also compete for high-level guests, going up against all sorts of talk shows airing all week. "It's not as if guests are always saving themselves for Sunday," he points out.
But Gregory is working to move beyond the Beltway-centric guests and topics that have long characterized the Sunday-morning talk shows.
"I want to expand the repertoire of our conversations," he says, which has led to booking corporate figures and state and local officials as well as celebrities engaged in social issues, like George Clooney. "It's not just a discussion of what Washington is doing and not doing, but also what kind of country are we, and what kind of society do we want to be?"
Even so, Gregory understands that "people still want their Washington fix," and the sort of program "Meet the Press" pioneered provides a welcome weekly peek inside the Beltway bubble. It's also a way, in polarized times, for Washington to talk to itself without shouting.
"But I want to keep pushing us to evolve and to meet changing interests in our viewers," says Gregory. "We're respecting the tradition of what we are and what the core mission of `Meet the Press' is, while staying relevant. That's our mandate."